Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today

Issue: 139
Posted: 4 July 13

Paul Blackledge

The recent calls for the British left either to “reclaim Labour” (Len McCluskey) or to build a new party capable of emulating Syriza’s successes in Greece (Ken Loach) demand serious consideration on these pages.1 At their core these proposals reflect a widespread desire, shared by members of the Socialist Workers Party, to fight the cuts, alongside revulsion at the Labour Party’s failure to do so. They also reflect a genuine excitement across the left about the prospects for new left formations such as Syriza and France’s similar Front de Gauche.2 Nevertheless the SWP has important reservations about these projects.3 This is most obvious in the case of our longstanding critique of the idea that Labour might be transformed into a socialist party.4 But it is also evident in Alex Callinicos’s claim that both Syriza and the Front de Gauche are best understood as “left reformist” coalitions.5

Among those calling for a new left party, a number have argued that Callinicos’s analysis acts as a sectarian barrier to the formation of a similar coalition in Britain, and that a comparable sectarianism is evident in the decision of our Greek sister organisation Sosialistiko Ergatiko Komma (SEK) to stand against Syriza as part of the revolutionary socialist coalition Antarsya.6 Superficially, the second aspect of this argument appears compelling. The European ruling class heaved a huge sigh of relief when Syriza was (narrowly) beaten in the general election of June 2012,7 and though the vote for Antarsya would not have made a significant difference to the overall result, many believe that SEK should have done everything in its power to help Syriza win the election.

Now to deny that sectarianism is a problem on the international left would be foolish. But it is neither sectarian of the SWP to stand outside the Labour Party nor for SEK to stand against Syriza. Indeed, in both cases political independence has helped us and SEK play a prominent part in social movements in Britain and Greece respectively. More generally, the claim that Syriza and the Front de Gauche are left reformist coalitions is at one level a simple statement of fact: they are electoral associations whose goal is to introduce significant progressive reforms through parliamentary channels. And though it is true that these coalitions also include more radical currents, there is nothing particularly novel about this. More to the point, to say that a formation is left reformist does not imply that we dismiss them. On the contrary, decisions about whether or not we should seek to join such a coalition depend upon a more concrete assessment of the specific political context. What the label “left reformist” does entail, however, is that revolutionaries should maintain their political independence even if they decide to join one of these coalitions. This perspective is rooted in the condensation of lessons from over a century’s experience of revolutionaries working alongside reformist, left reformist and centrist currents.

Of course, the truth is always concrete, and lessons cannot be read mechanically from the past. But it would be foolish to understate what we can learn from the history of the left, and those who deny this point by one-sidedly stressing the novelty of modern social conditions will tend to repeat past mistakes. This is especially true of leftist political formations which try to fool themselves that they’ve overcome old divisions between reformism and revolutionary politics. As we shall see, this rhetoric tends to conceal an essentially reformist practice whose appeal depends in part upon the suppression of historical memories of past failures. If we are to avoid at least some of these mistakes we would do well to remember that an important function of revolutionary parties is to act, as Tony Cliff used to say, as the “memory of the working class”.8

Clearly in the present conjuncture the emergence of left reformist currents is a very positive development, and those who underestimate the importance of this shift risk collapsing into sectarianism. This is why we welcome any breaks to the left from Labour, PASOK (its Greek counterpart) and those other social democratic parties that have “differentiated” themselves from Tory parties not by standing against austerity but by debating the detail of its implementation. But though we should work alongside these formations, there is another danger when dealing with them. There is a fine line between on the one hand avoiding sectarianism and on the other hand liquidating socialist groups into formations that despite breaking with social democratic parties have not broken with the logic of reformist politics.

Syriza’s recent attempt to present an increasingly moderate face to the Greek electorate under pressure to act as a responsible government in waiting is an example of the consequences of this failure to break with the logic of reformism.9 This approach isn’t primarily a function of the individual failings of Syriza’s leadership. Rather it is an entirely predictable effect of its left reformist politics. The problem with left reformist currents is that in practice they fail to extricate themselves from the limitations of more mainstream forms of reformism. This is dangerous because social democratic type parties have become what they have become for structural reasons, and any attempt to forge left unity that inadequately addresses the causes of this process will tend to repeat past mistakes. Indeed, there is a danger in this situation that more radical currents within these coalitions will get pulled to the right by a leadership whose politics is essentially electoral. So while revolutionaries welcome these new left reformist currents, it is important that our orientation towards them is informed by an analysis of their limitations as well as of their strengths. In particular, fundamental questions need to be asked about the possible use of the state to advance socialism.

In Syriza’s case, there is a tension between the very positive and highly welcome political critique of austerity and their orientation towards capturing the existing state machine through parliamentary elections. It is their parliamentary statism, however mediated, that tends to trap left reformist parties like Syriza within capitalist relations in ways that pressure them to come into conflict with and, unless successfully challenged from the left, eventually undermine the radicalism of their own base. So while it is of the first importance that revolutionaries welcome and work alongside these coalitions, it is also imperative that we maintain our political independence from them so that we are better able to struggle for an alternative beyond the limitations of their politics. This perspective demands a clear analysis of the nature of reformism.

State and civil society: the context of reformism

At the most general level reformism is best understood in relationship to what Marx called the standpoint of civil society or the standpoint of political economy.10 Marx used these terms interchangeably to refer to a wide spectrum of beliefs that effectively naturalised capitalism. In essence the problem with this perspective, as Marx argued in the Grundrisse, is that the existence of atomised and egoistic individuals in competition with each other through markets, far from being natural, is actually a very modern state of affairs. The further one looks back into history, he wrote, “the more does the individual…appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole”. Conversely, it is only in the 18th century, in the context of the newly emergent “civil society”, that social relations between people “confront the individual as mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity”. Accordingly, the “private interests” that are assumed to be fundamental in modern social theory are in fact “already a socially determined interest, which can be achieved only within the conditions laid down by society and with the means provided by society”.11

This novel standpoint underpins the historically specific experience of freedom in capitalist societies. We usually feel free to act howsoever we choose, so long as we don’t choose to change the world. This, as Edward Thompson argued, is the essence of apathy: the attempt at “private solutions to social evils”.12 Though atomised individuals can choose how to respond to capitalist social relations, to campaign against them usually seems to make about as much sense as campaigning against gravity.

The flipside of this condition is a historically specific conception of the state. Because egoistic individuals can’t be trusted to fulfil contracts, even the most vehemently free-market liberals accept that (minimal) states are needed to enforce the rule of law.13 This is the rational core of the liberal claim that states are a “necessary evil”. The role of states in enforcing the rule of law illuminates an important difference between modern capitalist states and earlier state forms. Whereas states originally emerged as the direct political expression of economic interests (ruling classes fixed their control over the economic sources of wealth through the use of political [state] power),14 modern capitalist states emerged in part to play a role of neutral arbiters between particular economic interests.15 It might be a myth that the seventeenth-century French king Louis XIV said “the state is me”, but it is certainly the case that state power and economic power went hand-in-hand in feudal and absolutist Europe.

By contrast, modern states ideally act with a degree of neutrality in relation to conflicts between individuals and firms within civil society, and this neutrality is supposedly reflected through the rule of law.16 But the rule of law functions with a very specific conception of neutrality. By treating people as atomised and egoistic property owners it effectively treats them as though they were capitalists. So while states operating through the rule of law are (ideally) neutral, theirs is essentially a form of neutrality in respect to intra-capitalist conflicts. There is no neutrality when conflicts challenge property rights because human rights within the rule of law are conceived essentially as property rights.17 So when these states are viewed in a broader perspective we can see that their superficial neutrality actually helps constitute and reproduce capitalist relations of production.18 And because the rule of law fosters the reproduction of capitalist social relations, though states constituted through the rule of law might appear natural and (ideally) neutral from the standpoint of civil society, they are best understood as an aspect of broader capitalist social relations.19

More concretely, because success in a world of competing states depends upon each state fostering capitalist economic activity within its own jurisdiction, bureaucracies in each state understand “rational” politics to be securely fixed within capitalist parameters.20 Capitalist firms need capitalist states to provide a “pro-business” context, and states need healthy firms as a source of tax revenue. This creates a relationship of “structural interdependence” between states and capital. So although the division between states and capital underpins both the belief in state neutrality and the very real degree of autonomy that modern states have from capital, the relationship of structural interdependence means the capitalist limitations to state autonomy are just as real.21

These constraints entail that “realistic” politics is restricted to change within the system and in line with the perceived imperatives of the system. Because mainstream political parties (Tory, Liberal, Labour, etc) all view society from this standpoint, though they debate different political perspectives these differences are as nothing when compared to their overwhelming similarities: beneath the heated exchanges they assume that what is good for capital is good for society more generally.

So the hollowness of human freedom through capitalist social relations (alienation) has as its corollary a hollow conception of politics: the narrow parameters of official bourgeois politics resemble the narrowness of the visual spectrum of light—the spread from red to blue seems great only so long as we ignore the enormous expanses beyond these parameters in the direction of infrared and microwaves on the one side and ultraviolet and X-rays in the other.

Nonetheless, the capitalist separation between politics and economics creates a space for thinking of states as possible instruments of radical anti-capitalist change. This belief was immensely strengthened in the late 19th century with the shift towards liberal (bourgeois) democracy. From this point onwards the idea of winning control over the state through parliamentary channels and using it to constrain and eventually transcend capitalism became widespread within the labour movement.22

Reform and revolution

There is an essential difference between practical struggles for reforms and the ideology of reformism. The latter has always been an unrealistic theoretical account of the way that an accumulation of individual reforms can give rise to a fundamental transformation of society without the need for a sharp revolutionary break between the old and the new.23 The struggle for reforms, by contrast, is a much more mundane (and much more important) aspect of capitalist society. Moreover, it exists in a complex relationship with reformism. For though reformism partly grew out of the struggle for reforms, there is also an important tension
between the two.

Although capitalism appears natural and fixed when viewed from the standpoint of the atomised individual, it is in a constant process of change. These changes generate innumerable and continually varying conflicts which underpin a diversity of social movements for change within the system. Though these movements are typically reformist in scope, it is perhaps of more importance that they move. For as movements they challenge the “normal” apathetic way life is experienced in civil society. The implications of this can be profound. On the one hand, coherent reformist tendencies within social movements will try to orientate these movements towards change through the state, or more latterly through groups of states (the EU, UN, etc). This makes some sense in so far as reforms won through struggle from below are often formalised through government legislation. Nonetheless, because states are capitalist institutions, advocates of this approach tend to act as conduits for capitalist “common sense” within movements, paralysing them by constraining the parameters of the reforms considered reasonable. On the other hand, however, though most people usually join social movements with the idea of improving life within capitalism their experience within these movements often points beyond these limits. Indeed, the experience of collective struggle in social movements with nominally moderate goals can create a space to challenge and sometimes even transcend assumptions about the naturalness of capitalism itself. This process is typically a function of the size and militancy of social movements. If social movements become sufficiently large and radical they can open a door to a new experience of capitalism. Rather than perceiving it only as a power over atomised individuals, social movements often create conditions whereby people can begin to feel their collective power to change it. Thus it is that revolutionary movements can grow out of the struggle for reforms.

This dynamism, alongside the fact that many of these movements fight for goals that are good things in and of themselves, means that it would be sectarian for revolutionaries to stand outside them. It also explains the tension between these movements and reformist leaders. For though the latter can often sound comparatively radical in periods of relative quiescence and despite the fact that they might even contribute to the emergence of real movements, their orientation to winning state power through parliament means they can easily come into conflict with movements they’d inspired as these movements radicalise beyond their initial parameters.24

It is because reformist politicians can quickly shift from leading movements to acting as a brake on their further radicalisation that revolutionaries must organise independently of them. This is not a case of being sectarian; rather it flows from the needs of movements themselves.25 If we aim to work with reformist leaders when they play a role in building real movements, we should also aim to be in a position to offer an alternative leadership to theirs as and when their orientation to the state threatens to undermine the movement. To do this requires that revolutionaries constantly try to prove in practice that our methods are better able to take the movement forward.26

This perspective is rooted in a distinct conception of social change. Marx argued that the limitations of the standpoint of civil society could be overcome from the point of view of the totality or of the standpoint of the working class.27 Workers’ struggles over the length and intensity of the working day reveal that beneath the appearance of free and equal exchange, the wage contract is in fact a historically specific form of exploitation. Moreover, by underpinning historically novel forms of solidarity these struggles potentially act as an immanent force for socialism within capitalism.28 And by tending towards control over the process of production, workers’ struggles have underpinned the emergence of novel forms of democracy that point beyond the limits of rebellion within capitalism to the possibility of a revolutionary overcoming of the capitalist separation of economics and politics and consequently the capitalist parameters of what is considered to be politically realistic.29

Working-class reformism

The importance of trade union based working class reformism within the broad reformist spectrum stems from the strategic location of the working class within capitalist social relations. Because the wage labour relationship is central to capitalist social relations, trade unionism is best understood as an elemental rebellion against the social atomisation that capitalism implies. Trade unions emerged as an organic attempt to mediate the worst excesses of the market in labour power. But though trade unions classically fixated on the reformist demand for “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”, at their most militant workers’ struggles have gone beyond this framework in ways that open the possibility of transcending wage labour, and therefore capitalism, itself.

In their youthful analyses of trade unionism Marx and Engels stressed the socialist potential of these struggles. Thus in The Condition of the Working Class in England Engels wrote that by seeking to overcome competition between individual workers, trade unionism pointed from the struggle within capitalism to the struggle against it, while in The German Ideology he and Marx wrote that “even a minority of workers who combine and go on strike very soon find themselves compelled to act in a revolutionary way”. With hindsight, Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein point out that this youthful optimism one-sidedly reflected the radicalism of 1840s trade unionism. In light of the subsequent experience of trade unionism in a period of economic expansion they recognised, as Marx wrote in Wages, Price and Profit, that though “trades unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital… They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it”.30

Though Marx and Engels correctly described the way reformist trade unionism was limited within the parameters of the wage contract, they did not provide an adequate structural explanation for why this should be so.31 To go beyond the limitations of their analysis it is important to recognise the generally conservative character of the layer of professional negotiators that emerged within trade unions to organise the terms and conditions of the sale of labour power. So long as this bureaucratic layer was very small its conservatism could be explained in a relatively ad hoc way. However, with its growth especially towards the very end of the nineteenth century the general nature of this conservatism became increasingly apparent to writers such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Robert Michels and Rosa Luxemburg.32

On the basis of a critical engagement with the classical Marxist tradition, Cliff and Gluckstein explained the trade union bureaucracy’s conservatism by reference to, first, their role as negotiators over the conditions of sale of labour power, second, their intermediary role between capital and labour, third their relatively high pay by contrast with those they represent, and, fourth, their attachment to social democratic parties. These factors not only differentiate the conditions of life of the bureaucracy from the ordinary trade union members, but more importantly, they tie them to the wage contract itself. And because wage labour is synonymous with capitalism the negotiating role tends to naturalise capitalism in the eyes of the bureaucracy.33

For most of the time workers too will tend to naturalise capitalist social relations in which they live, and they will often stand to the right of trade union officials—this is the rational core of the claim that trade union bureaucrats reflect a deeper conservatism rooted in the nature of trade unionism itself.34 Though this argument reflects an important truth, it understates the gap that tends to open between full-time officers and the rank and file, especially in periods of heightened class struggle. As Rosa Luxemburg argued, when workers engage in mass collective and self-directed struggles they can begin to move beyond the limitations of this reformist framework.35 Trade union officers, by contrast, typically play a much more conservative role: their ties to the state mean they tend to limit these struggles within capitalist parameters.36 This conservatism is particularly debilitating in periods of austerity. Whereas during economic booms it is easy to see that capitalism can afford better terms and conditions for workers, once boom turns to bust, “realistic” assessments of what the system can afford have been used to justify the logic of cuts. The bureaucracy therefore tends to play a contradictory role. Though it emerged to represent the interests of workers against capitalists, because it does so from within a capitalist perspective it all too often acts as a conservative influence within the working class.

Traditional working class reformist parties of the Labourist or social democratic type tend to complement at the state level the trade union bureaucracy’s negotiating function within civil society.37 But rather than overcoming the weaknesses associated with trade unionism, these parties reproduce these weaknesses at a higher level. Just as the trade union bureaucracy is tied to capitalism through its normalisation of the wage contract, these parties tacitly internalise the state’s essentially capitalist frame of reference by accepting its apparent neutrality at face value. Consequently, far from offering a socialist alternative to the electorate, traditional reformist parties act to normalise capitalist rationality within the working class. That is why Lenin insisted that though these organisations were made up of workers they were best understood as bourgeois parties.38

Specifically, the suggestion that these parties (at their peak) would use the capitalist state to bring about a socialist transformation of society was not merely incoherent; more importantly, it led in the opposite direction: the socialist aspirations of ordinary activists tended to be crucified on the cross of political “realism”. The profound consequences of this process were most clearly expressed by Rosa Luxemburg who argued that because reformism is a strategy of change within capitalism, reform and revolution aren’t two different roads to the same goal but rather lead in opposite directions.39 Fritz Tarnow wrote what was perhaps the most clear sighted reformist apology for this perspective at the time of the last great capitalist crisis in 1931:

Are we sitting at the sick-bed of capitalism, not only as doctors who want to cure the patient, but as prospective heirs who cannot wait for the end or would like to hasten it by administering poison? We are condemned, I think, to be doctors who seriously wish a cure, and yet we have to retain the feeling that we are heirs who wish to receive the entire legacy of the capitalist system today rather than tomorrow. This double role, doctor and heir, is a damned difficult task.40

Tarnow’s doctoring analogy illuminates a profound and general truth about the relationship between capitalism and reformism. In the case of social democracy this link can be explained structurally through its orientation to the capitalist state, and helps explain why nominally reformist social democratic governments have tended to respond to crises in ways that make workers pay. Indeed, these governments have consistently imposed cuts on their own constituency when capitalism has demanded it.41 Even the famed post-war Labour government recently mythologised by Ken Loach in his film The Spirit of 45 deployed troops against striking workers 18 times between 1945 and 1951.42 If this experience suggests there was no golden age of Labour reformism, at least the 1945-51 government did introduce very significant reforms. This was helped by the sense of radicalism in 1945, and by the fact of boom and full employment shortly thereafter. As time went on, however, subsequent Labour governments delivered less and less to the point where they barely even promise to be different today: creating a situation of reformism without reforms.43 One consequence of this behaviour is that Labourist and social democratic parties have become a shadow of their former selves over the post-war period: as these parties acted more and more like their right wing counterparts when in office, not only have voters become less attached to them but their membership has also declined.44

Unfortunately, the failure of reformism does not entail the demise of reformist consciousness within the working class and across society more generally. On the contrary, reformist consciousness is the common sense starting point of most movements for change, and this is why reformism remains widespread despite a dearth of reforms. One consequence of this is that the gap between these aspirations and the failings of traditional reformist politicians often takes the form of the re-emergence of left reformist movements. Unfortunately, though these movements offer a welcome and positive critique of the inadequacies of mainstream reformism, they are inadequate as an alternative because they fail to overcome the structural problems with reformism.

Left reformism and centrism

Left reformists typically imagine themselves acting as social democratic governments should have acted had they not been badly led. Though this is clearly an inadequate explanation for the failings of social democracy, because left reformist currents fit with “common sense” conceptions of change they can generate considerable popular enthusiasm. Though revolutionary socialists welcome such movements for change, it is important not to sow any illusions in left reformism.45 By contrast, it is a characteristic of “centrist” currents that they blur the lines between left reformism and revolutionary politics. Trotsky argued that centrist formations are politically “ambivalent”, combining reformist practice with much more radical, sometimes Marxist, rhetoric.46 Indeed, centrism is a slippery phenomenon that can act both as the medium through which newly radicalised layers break from reformism and as a pseudo-radical cover for reformist practice.47 One typical rhetorical device deployed in these circles is the suggestion that they have transcended the division between reform and revolution. Beneath the rhetoric, this assertion usually amounts to a claim that socialism can be introduced through the existing state machine so long as extra-parliamentary pressure is brought to bear on parliamentary deputies.

This argument is mistaken in two fundamental ways. First, it effectively assumes that reformists and revolutionaries differ not in their goals but in their methods: both aim at capturing the state with a view to using it to introduce socialism. From this standpoint, combining elements of both approaches would appear to be a simple case of applying common sense to a complex situation. Though superficially appealing, this perspective misunderstands the nature of revolutionary politics. While reformists do aim at taking control of the existing state, revolutionary Marxists do not. Indeed, there is nothing inherently reformist or revolutionary about engaging either in constitutional or in extra-parliamentary activities. What distinguishes revolutionaries from reformists is that we aim at overcoming the entirety of capitalist social relations, including the state form, through new forms of democracy that transcend the characteristically capitalist separation between politics and economics. We are fighting for freedom as embodied in the institutions of workers’ democracy that have been thrown up at the highpoints of workers’ struggles over the last century.48

Second, a corollary of their misunderstanding of the nature of the state is that centrists and left reformists effectively explain the weaknesses of mainstream reformism in relatively superficial terms: either the politicians had no backbone or the pressure on them from capital was insufficiently countered by pressure from workers and other elements of the reformist constituency. Unfortunately, a consequence of this weak account of the limitations of mainstream reformism is a tendency for left reformist groups to orient on the same parliamentary game that undermined social democracy in the first place: a game whose logic includes the pressure to tame their own constituency. This is certainly true of attempts to “reclaim Labour”, and it is the reason why, though we welcome the emergence of left reformist currents such as Left Unity and may even join coalitions with them, we maintain our political and organisational independence from them. In this sense, the Greek left wing electoral coalition Syriza isn’t fundamentally different from other left reformist currents: it has tended to subordinate other aspects of the struggle to its focus on winning election to parliament.49

This is evident, for example, in two interesting essays by activists within Syriza in the latest issue of Socialist Register. In the first of these, Michalis Spourdalakis claims that Syriza has moved beyond “both the reformism of a bankrupt social democracy and the vanguardism of revolutionaries” with the intention of bridging “the gap between reform and revolution”. What is more, despite its defeat in the June 2012 election, “austerity policies will soon create conditions conducive to Syriza’s coming to power, and…when it does it will not look anything remotely like a typical social democratic government”.50 In a complementary interview Aristes Baltas argues that, “looking at the situation right now, we might even say that if we take the government the revolution will start”.51

It is easy to see how, with rhetoric like this, the emergence of Syriza has generated so much optimism among so many socialists both in Greece and beyond. However, this rhetoric also threatens to backfire if a Syriza government fails to live up to the expectations it has raised. Unfortunately, Spourdalakis doesn’t explain how Syriza intends to avoid repeating the experience of those previous left governments which confused being in office with taking power. For his part, Baltas responded to an insightful question about fears that Syriza’s electoral trajectory raised the spectre of social democracy with the trite suggestion that Syriza members were “too aware of what Pasok did” to repeat the trajectory of social democracy.52

These comments do not begin to rise to the challenge of defending Syriza’s parliamentary strategy, especially in the light of its recent shift to the right. This failing can be illuminated by means of a pertinent observation made by the editor of New Left Review that Syriza is essentially a “Bennite grouping”.53 This reference to Tony Benn’s challenge to the leadership of the Labour Party in the early 1980s should be sobering. In the wake of the debacle of the 1974-9 Labour government (the limitations of which Benn and his colleagues were all “too aware of”), Benn led a powerful left wing challenge to the right wing leadership of the Labour Party. Unfortunately, the logic of electoral politics quickly derailed this movement. Within months of almost winning the party’s deputy leadership election in 1981, Benn submitted to pressure from the right and centre of the party at the so-called “Peace of Bishop’s Stortford” to withdraw the threat of an immediate leadership challenge in the name of unity before the upcoming election. Though Benn could count on tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of supporters at the peak of his movement, the electoral logic that tied him to the leadership of the Labour Party had a similar pull on the rank and file of his movement. In the face of rampant Thatcherism, and believing that parliament was the key arena of struggle, the Bennite rank and file quickly fell behind the Labour leadership and the movement which bore his name soon dissipated.54

If this behaviour was entirely predictable, what was perhaps most worrying at the time was that the most prestigious voices on the academic left, associated with the journals New Left Review and Socialist Register, threw their lot in with Benn. Though supporting Benn was an entirely creditable position, fostering illusions that he might transform the Labour Party into a socialist organisation was not. Regrettably, the editors of New Left Review and Socialist Register did just that.55 This effectively meant they repeated a mistake they’d made two decades earlier when many of them were activists within the New Left. In so doing they helped lead a new layer of activists into the political quagmire.

As I have argued previously, the British New Left of the 1950s failed to build a movement independent of Labourism in large part because of the left reformism of its leading members.56 In language that prefigured Spourdalakis’s claim about Syriza moving beyond the supposedly false dichotomy between reform and revolution, Edward Thompson argued that the New Left had moved beyond debates between evolutionary and revolutionary socialism to recognise that a revolutionary transition to socialism would extend gains made by the left over the previous half century. He argued that direct action and other extra-parliamentary activities would shape the political context, allowing a “peaceful revolution” through parliament.57

This focus on change through parliament dovetailed with a tendency for New Left activists to join the Labour Party with an earlier version of the “reclaim Labour” standpoint. In the short term this perspective met with some successes: at the 1960 Labour Party conference the left won key votes on the party’s constitution and on unilateral nuclear disarmament. However, the mood of jubilation that followed this moment was short lived, and a year later the right reasserted its control over the party through the medium of the trade union block vote. In these depressing circumstances, super-optimism quickly flipped over into extreme pessimism and the New Left collapsed. Subsequently, many of its leading activists shifted to the right as they grasped at any sign, however meagre, of a revival in the fortunes of the left. Indeed many ended up logic-chopping in an attempt to convince themselves that Harold Wilson’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party in 1963 was a mark of their victory in defeat: Wilson, it seemed, was going to lead the left to the promised land; and from then onwards “all hopes were now focused on Labour”.58

If grass roots apathy alongside the trade union block vote in the Labour Party was the institutional means by which the New Left’s hopes for Labour were defeated, the underlying theoretical weakness that put them in a position to be so defeated was the belief that Labour could be transformed to enact a socialist change through (a suitably pressured) parliament. Unfortunately, this weakness has been repeated again and again over the history of the left.

For instance, in the 1970s Ralph Miliband, an ex-New Leftist and at the time one of the two most important contributors to the academic Marxist debate on state theory, argued for the creation of a new socialist party that avoided the weaknesses with both Labourism and Leninism. Like both Thompson before him and Spourdalakis after, Miliband rehearsed centrist rhetoric about transcending divisions between reform and revolution. In “Moving On” he argued that the Labour Party was unable to act as a viable agency of socialist transformation because of its dogmatic attachment to parliamentarianism, while Trotskyists were dismissed on account of their commitment to the insurrectionary model of the October Revolution. He labelled this model “ultra-left” because it replaced parliamentary cretinism with “anti-parliamentary cretinism”.59 However, despite an explicit attempt to avoid both these errors, Miliband’s claim that “insurrectionary politics” had never offered a realistic solution to the needs of the Western workers’ movement informed his subsequent conclusion that some type of reformism was the only viable strategy for the left: given the “conditions of capitalist democracy” no path to socialism was conceivable other than via a democratically elected government “pledged to carry out” radical reforms.60

In a discussion of the first of these essays, Duncan Hallas illuminated a general failing with left reformist theory. He argued that Miliband and the broader New Left milieu had consistently “equivocated” over the need for revolution: the majority of leading figures of the New Left generation of 1956 had “failed”, and indeed “refused”, to “take a clear and unambiguous stand against left reformism. It refused to come to grips with the Communist tradition in its original Leninist form and with the Left Opposition tradition that arose from it. It largely ignored the whole historical experience from 1914 to 1956. Significantly, it hardly discussed the Communist International. In short, it failed to develop a clear and consistent theoretical and political foundation”.61 One consequence of this refusal was a tendency among ex-members of the New Left milieu to embrace more or less militant variants of reformism.

This became evident in the 1980s when Miliband played an important role alongside members of the editorial board of New Left Review in setting up first the Socialist Society and then the Chesterfield Conference with a view to bridging the gap between the reformist and revolutionary left in Britain. From the outset the Socialist Society acted as a ginger group to the Bennite left. Anyone who had read Miliband’s analysis of the Labour left in his classic study of the Labour Party, Parliamentary Socialism, could have guessed that after the great fanfare the Socialist Society would decline in parallel with the predictable decline of Bennism—and at root for the same reasons: electoral considerations would pull the left in behind the right, and this tendency would be reinforced as leftist politics seemed increasingly “unrealistic” in a period of defeats under Thatcher.62

To escape this scenario the Socialist Society and following it the Chesterfield Conference would have had to break with the logic of parliamentarianism, but its left reformism precluded that choice. And rather than bridge the gap between reformists and revolutionaries, Miliband and those around him found themselves “squeezed” between the Labour Party on the one side as it moved to the right and the SWP on the other.63 In the end, the attempt by Miliband and those around him to overcome the division between reform and revolution left them in a limbo from which they were unable to offer a realistic alternative to the tendency for the Bennite left (though not Benn himself) either to fall in behind Kinnock’s drive to push the Labour Party rightwards or to fall out of politics altogether.

Whereas the decline of the Socialist Society and Bennism was a detail of 1980s political history, the rise and fall of Eurocommunism a few years earlier was of much greater significance. The term “Eurocommunism” was coined by a Yugoslav journalist to describe a meeting between the Italian and Spanish Communist parties in July 1975.64 What these parties, followed shortly afterwards by the French and a number of smaller CPs, had in common was a desire to prove their electoral credibility by distancing themselves from Moscow. This gesture had two immediate goals: first, it was intended to reassure their local ruling classes that they wouldn’t betray their interests to the Russians; while, second, it aimed at winning over a new layer of activists who though disillusioned with social democracy were still some distance from the revolutionary left.65 In a sense there was little of substance that was new here: the superficial novelty of Eurocommunism was belied by the fact that it had roots going back to the heyday of Stalinism.66

In the wake of Hitler’s rise to power, Stalin aimed to forge alliances with British and French imperialisms to protect Russia from German imperialism. In this context the Communist International embraced what became known as the Popular Front strategy. At its core this new policy pushed Communists to form alliances with “progressive” sections of the bourgeoisie against fascism (ie those sections that were willing to forge military alliances with Russia). Though coloured with some revolutionary rhetoric, the Popular Front was essentially a reformist strategy with a twist: the Communist parties wanted change through parliament but they were loyal to Moscow and acted as useful tools of its foreign policy.67 Though implicit from the 1930s this break with revolutionary politics was first made explicit in 1951 with the publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s programme, The British Road to Socialism. Through the medium of Eurocommunism, the French, Spanish and Italian parties caught up with this position in a context characterised by two novel developments: first, the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War meant that Russia had less use for these parties, while, second, Moscow had less appeal to a newly radicalised domestic constituency in the wake of its 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Eurocommunism’s reiteration of Stalinism’s break with revolutionary politics was clearly expressed in “Eurocommunismand the State by Santiago Carrillo, general secretary of the Communist Party of Spain. Though eager to distance himself from an earlier generation of social democrats—he insisted that Lenin was right against Kautsky, and that the “dictatorship of the proletariat was an unavoidable historical necessity” in 1917—he argued that society had changed since then so that socialism could now be expected to come through the “democratic road”; and indeed that there was “no reason for not healing the split of 1920”.68 The split to which he referred was, of course, the moment when the revolutionary left of Spanish social democracy broke with the right to form the Communist Party. To suggest that this rift could be healed meant that the division between reform and revolution was no longer relevant—at least not in Europe. And as we shall see, the logic of this position narrowed to invisibility the difference between Communist and social democratic parties.

Whereas Carrillo’s book was influential but very crude, Nicos Poulantzas penned what was perhaps the most sophisticated defence of a (left) Eurocommunist position.69 Poulantzas’s work is important not only in relation to its influence in the 1970s and 1980s, but also because of a recent attempt to revive his ideas.70 What is perhaps most interesting about Poulantzas’s contribution to this literature is the gap between the radical form taken by his critique of Leninism and its clichéd content. With regard to the latter, like Thompson, Miliband, Carrillo, and Spourdalakis, etc, Poulantzas suggested that the “basic dilemma from which we must extricate ourselves” is the false choice between social democracy and Leninism.71 If this was yet another variant of rhetoric about transcending the debate between reform and revolution, the radical side of this critique took the form of his analysis of the “statism” that supposedly united social democracy and Leninism. As he presented it, this point included an important element of truth: both social democratic regimes in the West and “Communist” regimes in the East were “marked by statism and profound distrust of mass initiatives; in short by suspicion of democratic demands”.72 The problem with this position was that it informed his claim that Stalinism’s contempt for democracy had roots in Lenin’s politics.

Interestingly, rather than follow the Cold War consensus to lay the blame for this original sin myth at the door of Lenin’s What is to be Done?, Poulantzas pointed the finger at what has been traditionally viewed as Lenin’s most democratic work: The State and Revolution. Following a partial account of Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Bolsheviks’ suppression of the Constituent Assembly, Poulantzas argued that the fundamental flaw with Lenin’s politics was his dismissal of “institutions of representative democracy and political freedoms to a simple emanation of the bourgeoisie”.73 By contrast, he argued that the state is itself a terrain of struggle: it is “the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions”.74 This model opened a space for a view of the transition to socialism that was very different to Lenin’s concept of dual power. According to Lenin, a moment of dual power emerged in revolutionary situations when the working class developed organs of their own power, but had yet to replace the existing state machine. Capitalist and workers’ states thus existed together in an unstable mix until one defeated the other in either revolution or counter-revolution. The problem with this position, according to Poulantzas, is that by overstating the unity of the capitalist state, Lenin understated the possibility of conflicts within it. Not only did Lenin misconceive the nature of the socialist project, but by underestimating the importance of organs of representative democracy he also opened the door to Stalin’s undemocratic statism. By contrast, according to Poulantzas, “the essential problem of the democratic road to socialism” is: “How is it possible radically to transform the state in such a manner that the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy…are combined with the unfurling of forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies?”75

Though Poulantzas points to a real issue—states are not things, and there are undoubted conflicts within them—he underestimates the actual unity of the state, especially as this is articulated in periods of crisis. For instance, Joachim Hirsch argues that the relationship between states and capital means that above all during crises states are compelled to act in ways that brings them into conflict with the labour movement. Thus, as profits fall states find themselves compelled “to defend the profit of capital” on the one hand and to attack the income of workers on the other.76 More generally, Fred Block criticises Poulantzas’s use of the concept of “relative autonomy” to explain the relationship of the state to civil society. According to Poulantzas, the concept of relative autonomy is the only means by which state theorists can retain an allegiance to Marxism as it allows the state to be understood in a non-reductionist yet materially determined way.77 But as Block points out, “the relative autonomy formulation is too limiting” because it doesn’t adequately overcome the problem of reductionism. Indeed, Poulantzas’s formulation about the state being a specific condensation of class relations effectively reduces state power to these relations.78 Alternatively, in an argument that prefigures elements of Harman’s discussion of the structural interdependence between state and capital, Block argues that state power cannot be reduced to class relations, but that because states exist in a particular context they remain tied to capital. First, international competition forces states to try to reduce conflict within their territory. Second, the bourgeoisie has disproportionate control over wealth and resources. Third, the capitalist mode is characterised by specific contradictions which generate specific problems. Taken together these push the state to act in a manner that cannot be reduced to the class relations “condensed” within it.79

This is especially true in those heightened periods of class struggle when workers create institutions capable of challenging for power. It is at points like this that the structural interdependence between state and capital enforces a unity on the state against the workers’ movement.80 Indeed, contra Poulantzas’s deployment of Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin on dual power, this is exactly what Luxemburg learnt in the heat of the German Revolution. Colin Barker points out that Luxemburg changed her mind about the German variant of Russia’s Constituent Assembly: the National Assembly. It was through the practical experience of revolution that she revised her original perspective so that by the end of her life she was arguing much the same thing for Germany as Lenin had advocated in Russia: “Whoever pleads for a National Assembly is consciously or unconsciously depressing the revolution to the historical level of a bourgeois revolution”.81 In the course of the German Revolution she recognised that the key question posed in the German Revolution was essentially the same as had been posed in the Russian Revolution: Soviets or Parliaments?

To pose the matter in this way does not entail that revolutionaries dismiss representative democracy—indeed soviets combine forms of direct and representative democracy.82 But we recognise that the forms of representation characteristic of bourgeois parliaments act as a barrier not merely to popular participation within government but even to popular representation within it. As Barker points out, in capitalist democracies the voter is the atomised individual in civil society whose distance from her neighbours is confirmed by the secret ballot and reinforced by the fact that she has little control over her representative. What is more, she votes only for the legislature, not the rest of the state, and she votes for the generality of policies, not the specifics of their implementation.83 This is not to say that revolutionaries dismiss the substance of bourgeois democracy. Rather we argue that its essential defining characteristic is not the representative form of government but the mechanism through which capitalist rule is reproduced: thus by contrast with fascism, for instance, in which capitalist rule rests upon repression at the hands of mass mobilisation of the middle classes, capitalist rule within liberal democracies is mediated through the labour bureaucracy.84 Of course, defending bourgeois democracy includes defending its characteristic forms of representation, but these are not the fundamental reasons why it should be defended against fascism. At core, bourgeois democratic regimes are to be preferred because workers have won the right to organise within them, and this means there is qualitatively more freedom in these states than there is under fascist regimes.

The tragedy of reformism (left and right) is that it tends to become a prisoner of capitalism because it confuses capturing government with taking political power. Not only does this project leave the vast bulk of the state essentially untouched; it doesn’t even begin to challenge deeper economic relations of control. This misunderstanding of the location of political power has had profoundly negative consequences within the labour movement. Reformist politicians tend to subordinate activity outside parliament generally and within workers’ organisations specifically to their focus on parliamentary elections. Thus, through the mistaken belief that it is possible to use a capitalist state to introduce anti-capitalist measures, reformists tend to undermine actual anti-capitalist activity. Left reformism effectively emerges as a critique of the consequences of this type of politics without actually providing an adequate explanation of it. In the case of Poulantzas, despite writing of the state being a condensation of forces of class relations, in practice because his analysis of bourgeois democracy was abstracted from the class struggle85 he ended up defending a version of Eurocommunism’s subordination of “the mass movement to the need to maintain a left government”.86

In a blunt assessment of the Eurocommunist experience, Willie Thompson writes that it “achieved no success anywhere”.87 If anything this estimation understates its weaknesses: for not only did Eurocommunism fail to bring about radical social change; in practice it also opened the door to attacks on the working class while weakening the Communist parties themselves. This failure flowed from the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Eurocommunist strategy: by orienting towards winning progressive change through the existing capitalist state, the closer the Eurocommunists came to government the more they acted like classical social democrats. This process came to a head in the mid-1970s in Spain, Italy and France through the Pact of Moncloa, the Historic Compromise, and the Union of the Left respectively. In Spain the ex-Francoist prime minister Adolfo Suarez agreed to legalise the Communist Party in return for it accepting the monarchy and selling wage controls and spending cuts. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Italian Communist Party responded to the coup in Chile by agreeing to support the austerity programme of a Christian Democrat government so as to prevent the further polarisation of Italian society. Things were slightly different in France where the Communist Party formed an electoral bloc with the social democrats in the 1970s, and then entered government with them in 1981.

Whatever their specific differences, in each case Communists gave a left cover for right wing practice that helped disarm the working class in the wake of the upturn in struggle in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. In practice this paralleled the experience of the Labour government’s social contract in Britain, and similarly placed the Eurocommunists in conflict with the interests of their social base. It each case the left lost out, and the right made headway.88 This approach fanned the flames of crisis within both the Eurocommunist parties themselves and the working class more generally. And these crises helped prepare the ground for the subsequent neoliberal onslaught.

Unfortunately, this crisis was reinforced by the way that sections of the European revolutionary left fostered illusions in these so-called “left governments”. Though this approach meant that many revolutionary groups could benefit from the heightened expectations that greeted the election of these governments, it also meant that they followed Eurocommmunism (and European social democracy) into crisis once they began to sell austerity.89 This need not have been so—or at the very least these pressures could have been muted had the workers’ movement had fewer illusions in their reformist representatives. As Chris Harman and Tim Potter argued in a fundamental discussion of the topic of workers’ governments, though reforms can obviously be won by exerting extra-parliamentary pressure on parliamentary representatives, this is much more likely if the extra-parliamentary forces are politically and organisationally independent of the parliamentarians. Although the election of a left government can increase the self-confidence of workers, where these workers are politically tied to the governing party they are more easily disciplined than those who are not. Conversely, where workers are politically independent of those who would sell austerity, they are better positioned to fight for reforms.

If the heart of our politics is a strategy aimed at developing forms of working class power, this entails that though revolutionaries will in all likelihood be found celebrating the confidence that comes with the election of left governments, we should maintain our independence from these governments and try to break workers from illusions in them because though they are in government they are not in power.90 Perhaps the most important negative example of this position is the experience of POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) during the Spanish Civil War. A nominally revolutionary organisation, rather than maintaining their independence from reformist forces on the Republican side with a view to winning their supporters to revolutionary politics in struggle, the POUM “did everything to remain in the role of good ‘left’ friends and counsellors of the leaders of the mass organisations”.91 In the end, they acted as a left cover for a bourgeois government that was unable and unwilling to unleash the forces capable of defeating Franco. Thus, Trotsky commented, despite the individual “honesty and heroism” of its members, the POUM’s centrism meant that it carried “an enormous responsibility for the Spanish tragedy”.92

Unfortunately, history has a tendency to repeat itself in increasingly farcical ways. Thus three decades after the Italian left crucified itself on the cross of the Historic Compromise the largest fragment of the old Communist Party, trading under the name Democratic Left, joined a coalition government led by Romano Prodi. Prodi’s government also included Rifondazione Comunista, a party rooted in the minority of old Communists who nominally rejected the social democratic politics of the Democratic Left. Though Rifondazione had played an important role in the anti-capitalist movement at the turn of the millennium, their participation a few years later in a government that imposed austerity and sent soldiers to Afghanistan and Lebanon was punished by the electorate leaving them a shadow of their former self as Berlusconi returned to power in 2008.93

The reformist logic of Rifondazione’s actions was impeccable: by joining Prodi’s coalition they helped keep Berlusconi out of office in 2006. However, by so doing not only did they provide a left cover to Prodi’s austerity policies, but ironically enough they also fundamentally undermined their ability to give a lead to the opposition to Berlusconi. As Chris Harman pointed out, once they joined a bourgeois government they acted, as Rosa Luxemburg predicted they would act, not as socialists in power but as bourgeois politicians: “With the entry of a socialist into the government and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister”.94

Conclusion

Social democracy emerged as a political expression of working class aspirations for progressive change. Through the labour bureaucracy, however, these aspirations were institutionalised within capitalism. One consequence of this structural link between social democracy and capitalism has been a tendency to reduce reforms to what capitalism can afford. So even during the post-war boom social democrats were always careful to insist that their plans for reform were “affordable”. But as boom turned to bust the issue of affordability was magnified. The implications of this process have been reinforced since the return to crisis over the last six years. As the parameters of change within capitalism have shrunk, social democratic parties have accepted the logic of austerity.

Because this situation removes neither the desire for progressive change nor the material roots for a kind of “common sense” reformism it shouldn’t surprise us that many will respond to the failings of Labourism by embracing different types of reformism. Both Len McCluskey’s call to “reclaim Labour” and Ken Loach’s call for a new socialist party along the lines of Syriza should be viewed in this light. They reflect a popular reformist critique of austerity and the Labour Party’s response to it which, nonetheless, continues to orientate primarily on change through parliament. Clearly revolutionary socialists recognise these developments as both positive and problematic.

If the great strength of these currents stems from the way they resonate with widespread anger towards the cuts and those politicians who justify them, their main weakness is that beneath their radical rhetoric they don’t offer a fundamental break with reformism. This is evident, for instance, in Ed Rooksby’s recent attempt to justify Loach’s perspective from a position influenced by the work of the Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky. Rooksby follows Kagarlitsky to argue that a new British socialist party should aim to overcome the division between reformists and revolutionaries.95 Thus far, so familiar. What Rooksby doesn’t discuss, however, is the concrete example Kagarlitsky gives to justify his position: Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist-Communist government in France in the early 1980s. Despite Kagarlitsky’s rhetoric about developing a “revolutionary reformist” strategy in which reforms “run counter to the logic of capitalism”, he justified Mitterrand’s turn to austerity after the collapse of his initial experiment in Keynesianism. According to Kagarlitsky, Mitterand’s austerity programme was the “logical and necessary” consequence of a situation in which “the possibilities of a radical course had been exhausted”.96 Now Mitterrand’s policies were logical and necessary—but only from a capitalist point of view! And one consequence of these policies was that many of those who danced on the streets of Paris when Mitterrand was first elected found themselves without a job when his austerity measures kicked in. The end result was disillusionment across the French left.97 If Mitterrand’s trajectory was not unusual among left (and not-so left) reformist politicians, unfortunately neither was Kagarlitsky’s left reformist defence of the government’s “realism” against the “unrealistic” critique coming from its social base.

The classical example of the consequences for socialists who do not maintain their independence from reformist parties and governments was the Second International (1889-1914). Tied through bureaucratic and parliamentary structures to the existing state, the Second International married radical verbiage with reformist practice. And in Karl Kautsky it had its own precursor of Poulantzas. He argued that the aim of the left should not be “the destruction of state power, but always only a shift in the relationship of forces within state power”.98 This approach led him to subordinate all politics to parliamentarianism such as to effectively excuse the way German social democracy became tied to the German capitalist state in the decades leading up to 1914.99

It was the failure of this project that led Lenin and others to break with social democracy in 1914. In breaking with social democracy Lenin didn’t dismiss the idea of working within parliament. What he did do was invert the relationship between parliamentary activity and work within the mass movement from below. Whereas social democrats subordinated the latter to the former, he placed agitation within the movement from below at the core of his politics; subordinating everything to the goal of the real conquest of political power through workers’ councils: “Communist members of parliament must subordinate all of their parliamentary activities to the party’s work outside of parliament”.100 This project couldn’t be carried out through the social democratic parties because that’s not how they worked. Despite their radical origins, they had become parliamentary parties, and this is what undermined their socialism. A socialist party could only be built on the basis of a very different political orientation. Seen in this light, the problem with both Len McCluskey’s and Ken Loach’s proposals is that despite their criticisms of the Labour leadership neither involves a clear break with parliamentary reformism. Consequently, neither offers an adequate basis for socialist advance in Britain.

Of course, this analysis doesn’t preclude us working alongside these formations. But it does mean that even if we choose to join a coalition we shouldn’t dissolve ourselves into it. The danger in such situations, as Trotsky pointed out, stems not from participation within such movements but in “having illusions” in them.101 Political independence from reformism is an absolute prerequisite of revolutionary political practice. But if political independence is the ABC of revolutionary socialist politics, the full richness of revolutionary politics emerges through the development of concrete and novel ways of working alongside (left) reformist currents. It is because we recognise that the first port of call for most people when they become politically active is one or other form of reformism that revolutionaries have traditionally related to reformist workers through the united front tactic. In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars we expanded this approach to include political work alongside left reformist critics of Labourism, most importantly through the Respect Coalition.102

If the debacle over Respect teaches us anything it should be that the question of political independence is of fundamental importance when engaging with “political united fronts”—those coalitions in which revolutionaries work alongside left reformists to offer a left electoral alternative to mainstream reformist parties. Though these formations involve a positive break with mainstream reformist parties, because the pressure to accommodate to parliamentarianism will be great within them it is all the more important that revolutionaries—if they make the tactical decision on the basis of a concrete assessment of the situation to join such coalitions—maintain their independence inside or outside a coalition. We do so because historical experience suggests that left reformist politicians will, sooner or later, repeat the experience of reformism and try to subordinate the movement to parliamentary credibility. And when they do so, we will have to break with them.103

This is because we have, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, a different goal to reformists. We believe that fostering independent working class political activity is of fundamentally greater value to the socialist project than winning parliamentary elections because our goal is workers’ power through workers’ councils. By contrast, because the best reformists can hope for is to win office but not power we expect that conflicts will arise between left governments or potential left governments and the movements that make up their base. At moments like this it is of the first importance that revolutionary socialists are in a position to challenge for the leadership of such movements to win them away from the dead end of parliamentary politics.104 Either revolutionaries succeed in doing this, or we are condemned at best to await another (left or right) reformist government to sell us more austerity.


Notes

1: Thanks to Colin Barker, Ian Birchall, Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara for their comments on a draft of this essay.

2: For journalistic introductions to the Front de Gauche and Syriza that are sympathetic to their subjects see respectively, Marlière, 2013, and Mason, 2012.

3: For an overview see Callinicos, 2013b.

4: See, for example, Mayer and Lavellette, 2012.

5: Callinicos, 2012a; 2012b.

6: Burgin and Hudson, 2012; Seymour, 2012a; 2012b; More generally see the interpretation of Syriza in Davanellos, 2008.

7: Marvis, 2012.

8: Andrew Collier registers Cliff’s insight in the context of a broader discussion of the role of tradition in socialist politics-Collier, 2009, p102.

9: Kampagiannis, 2013, p176.

10: In the tenth thesis on Feuerbach Marx wrote: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity”.

11: Marx, 1973, p156.

12: Thompson, 1960a, p5.

13: Perhaps Hayek is the most important representative of this tradition-see Gamble,1996, pp98-99.

14: Engels, 1972.

15: Pashukanis, 1978, pp138-9.

16: Of course, in practice, states are tied through a myriad of links to business interests and Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have the same relationship to the law as you or I do.

17: Blackledge, 2012, p76.

18: Marx 1975; Picciotto, 1979, p172

19: Pashukanis, 1978, p144; Holloway and Picciotto 1978; 1991.

20: “Rational” should always be understood as meaning rational from a particular perspective.

21: Harman, 2009, p110; 1991, p15; Barker, 1978; Barker, 1991.

22: For a critique of the attempt to subsume Engels within this process see Nimtz, 2000, pp253-283.

23: An early variant was decisively criticised by Rosa Luxemburg (1989).

24: Harman, 2004, p6.

25: At the Historical Materialism New York conference in April 2013 Paul Kellogg argued that the left should put the needs of the movement before those of the party. This undialectical formulation merely inverts the sectarian error of putting the party before the movement. By contrast, because movements are terrains of struggle about how to move forward there is a unity between building them and building parties within them.

26: Choonara, 2008, p50.

27: Marx, 1976, p732; Arthur, 1986, p145.

28: Blackledge, 2012.

29: See Barker, 1987; Gluckstein, 1985; Ness and Azzellini, 2011.

30: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp21-22.

31: Post, 2010; Johnson 1980.

32: Luxemburg, 1986; Michels, 1962; Webb and Webb 1920; Schorske, 1983, p127; Burgess 1980, p27.

33: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p290; Callinicos, 1995, pp16-19; Darlington and Upchurch, 2011, p80.

34: See Hyman, 2011, and for a critique Darlington and Upchurch, 2011. It was all said before in an exchange between Richard Hyman, and Duncan Hallas-see Hyman, 1980, and Hallas, 1980.

35: Luxemburg, 1986.

36: Callinicos, 1995, pp23-26.

37: Steenson,1981, p86.

38: Lenin, 1920.

39: Luxemburg, 1989.

40: Quoted in Cliff, 1975, p126.

41: Birchall, 1986.

42: Ellen, 1984.

43: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp429-433.

44: Pemberton and Wickham-Jones, 2013; McGuinness, 2012.

45: Trotsky, 1979, p658.

46: Trotsky, 1973a, p260; 1973b, p66.

47: Trotsky, 1975, p273.

48: Lenin, 1968; Gluckstein, 1985. See also Blackledge, 2011, pp86-89.

49: Kampagiannis, 2013.

50: Spourdalakis, 2012, pp108; 116.

51: Baltas, 2012, p133.

52: Baltas, 2012, p132.

53: Watkins, 2012, p11.

54: Blackledge, 2011. On Bennism see Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp348-355, 361-366.

55: Newman, 2002, pp270-278

56: Blackledge, 2006.

57: Thompson, 1960b, pp298-305.

58: Fraser, 1988, p61.

59: Miliband, 1976, p139.

60: Miliband, 1982, pp156-157.

61: Hallas, 1977, p7.

62: Newman, 2002, pp270-278; 299-308.

63: Newman, 2002, p307.

64: Simon, 2007, p81.

65: Harman, 1979, p55.

66: Carrillo, 1977, chapter 5; Mandel, 1978.

67: Hallas, 1985, p141.

68: Carrillo, 1977, pp151; 153-154; 10; 104.

69: Jessop, 1985, p297.

70: Gallas and others, 2011.

71: Poulantzas, 1978, p256.

72: Poulanzas, 1978, p251.

73: Poulantzas, 1978, p252.

74: Poulantzas, 1978, pp128-129; Jessop, 1985, p61.

75: Poulantzas, 1978, p256.

76: Hirsch, 1978, p103.

77: Poulantzas in Block, 1987, pp81-2.

78: Block, 1987, p83.

79: Block, 1987, p84-87.

80: See, for instance, the essays collected in Barker, 1987.

81: Quoted in Barker, 1979, p96.

82: Callinicos, 1993.

83: Barker, 1979, pp97-100.

84: Trotsky, 1971, p158.

85: Barker, 1979, p92.

86: Jessop, 1985, p307.

87: Thompson, 1998, p170.

88: Birchall, 1986, pp142-166; Thompson, 1998, pp166-176; Harman, 1988, pp200; 332; 341-342; Spencer, 1979; Potter, 1981.

89: Harman, 1979, p54; 1988, p346.

90: Harman and Potter, 2010, p96. We now know that Harman, along with just about everyone else who commented on debates from the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, was working with a misleading translation of the Congress. Nonetheless, this does not take away from the substance of his strategic conclusions-Riddell, 2012, pp20-27.

91: Trotsky, 1973a, p343.

92: Trotsky, 1973a, pp344-345.

93: Harman, 2005; 2008b.

94: Luxemburg quoted in Harman, 2008b, p17; cf Harman 2005.

95: Rooksby, 2013; Kagarlitsky, 1990.

96: Kagarlitsky, 1990, p149; Callinicos, 1990.

97: Fournier, 1986.

98: Kautsky quoted in Salvadori, 1979, p162.

99: Cliff, 1976, pp9-10.

100: Riddell, 1991, p478.

101: Trotsky, 1979, p658.

102: Harman, 2008a.

103: Harman, 2008a, pp43-47.

104: Harman, 1988, p344.


References

Arthur, Chris, 1986, The Dialectics of Labour (Blackwell), http://chrisarthur.net/dialectics-of-labour/index.html

Baltas, Aristides, 2012, “The Rise of Syriza: An Interview” Socialist Register 2013 (Merlin).

Barker, Colin, 1978, “The State as Capital”, International Socialism 1 (summer), www.marxists.de/theory/barker/stateascap.htm

Barker, Colin, 1991 [1978], “A Note on the Theory of the Capitalist State”, in Simon Clarke (ed), The State Debate (Macmillan), www.marxists.de/theory/barker/capstates.htm

Barker, Colin, 1979, “A New Reformism: A Critique of the Political Theory of Nicos Poulantzas”, International Socialism 4 (spring), www.isj.org.uk/?id=294
Barker, Colin (ed), 1987, Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks).

Blackledge, Paul, 2006, “The New Left’s Renewal of Marxism”, International Socialism 112 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=251

Blackledge, Paul, 2011, “Labourism and Socialism: Ralph Miliband’s Marxism”, International Socialism 129 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=700

Blackledge, Paul, 2012, Marxism and Ethics (State University of New York Press).

Block, Fred, 1987, Revising State Theory (Temple University Press).

Birchall, Ian 1986, Bailing out the System (Bookmarks).

Burgess, Keith 1980, The Challenge of Labour: Shaping British Society, 1850-1930 (Croom Helm).

Burgin, Andrew, and Kate Hudson, 2012, “Greece: Answering the Critics of a United Front”, http://socialistunity.com/greece-answering-the-critics-of-a-united-front/

Callinicos, Alex 1990, “A Third Road?”, Socialist Review 128, February 1990.

Callinicos, Alex 1993, “Socialism and Democracy”, in David Held (ed), Prospects for Democracy, (Polity).

Callinicos, Alex, 1995, Socialists in the Trade Unions (Bookmarks).

Callinicos, Alex, 2012a, “The Politics of Europe’s Rising Left”, Socialist Worker (19 May),
www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28461

Callinicos, Alex, 2012b, “The Second Coming of the Radical Left”, International Socialism 135 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=819

Callinicos, Alex, 2013a, “Economic Blues”, International Socialism 138 (spring), ?id=881” target=”_blank”>www.isj.org.uk/
?id=881

Callinicos, Alex, 2013b, “Where Next for the Left?”, Socialist Worker (7 May)
http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/33227/Where+next+for+the+left%3F

Carrillo, Santiago, 1977, “Eurocommunismand the State (Lawrence & Wishart).

Choonara, Joseph, 2008, “The United Front”, International Socialism 117 (winter),
www.isj.org.uk/?id=397

Cliff, Tony, 1975, The Crisis (Pluto).

Cliff, Tony, 1976, Lenin. II (Pluto).

Cliff, Tony, and Donny Gluckstein, 1986, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle (Bookmarks).

Cliff, Tony, and Donny Gluckstein 1996, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks).

Collier, Andrew, 2009 “Marx and Conservatism”, in Andrew Chitty and Martin McIvor (eds), Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy (Palgrave)

Darlington, Ralph, and Martin Upchurch, 2011, “A Reappraisal of the Rank and File versus Bureaucracy Debate”, Capital and Class 36 (1).

Davanellos, Antonis, 2008, “Greek Workers Move Left”, International Socialist Review, 59 (May-June), www.isreview.org/issues/59/rep-greece.shtml

Ellen, Geoff, 1984, “Labour and Strikebreaking 1945-51”, International Socialism 24 (summer).

Engels, Frederick, 1972, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Lawrence and Wishart).

Fournier, Jacques, 1986, “The Parliamentary Road to…Capitalism—The Socialist Party and the left in France 1981-86”, International Socialism 33 (autumn).

Fraser, Ronald 1988, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London).

Gallas, Alexander, Lars Bretthauer and Lars Kannankulam (eds), 2011, Reading Poulantzas (Pluto).

Gamble, Andrew, 1996, Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty (Polity).

Garganas, Panos, 2012, “Greece After the Election”, International Socialism 136 (autumn),
www.isj.org.uk/?id=855

Gluckstein, Donny, 1985 The Western Soviets (Bookmarks).

Hallas, Duncan, 1977, “How Can We Move On?”, Socialist Register 1977 (Merlin).

Hallas, Duncan, 1980, “Trade Unionists and Revolution: A Response to Richard Hyman”, International Socialism 8 (spring).

Hallas, Duncan, 1985, The Comintern (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 1979, “Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left”, International Socialism 4 (spring), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1979/xx/eurevleft.html

Harman, Chris, 1988, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 1991, “The State and Capitalism Today”, International Socialism 51 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=234

Harman, Chris, 2004, “Spontaneity, Strategy and Politics”, International Socialism 104 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=12

Harman, Chris, 2005, “The History of an Argument”, International Socialism 105 (winter),
www.isj.org.uk/?id=58

Harman, Chris, 2008a, “The Crisis in Respect”, International Socialism 117 (winter),
www.isj.org.uk/?id=396

Harman, Chris, 2008b, “Italian Lessons”, International Socialism 119 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=452

Harman, Chris 2009, Zombie Capitalism (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris and Tim Potter, 2010 [1977], “The Workers’ Government”, in Chris Harman, Selected Writings (Bookmarks), www.isj.org.uk/?id=295

Hill, Christopher 1996, Liberty Against the Law (Penguin).

Hirsch, Joachim, 1978, “The State Apparatus and Social Reproduction”, in John Holloway and Sol Picciotto (eds), State and Capital (Edward Arnold).

Holloway, John, and Sol Picciotto, 1978, “Introduction: Towards a Materialist Theory of the State”, in John Holloway and Sol Picciotto (eds), State and Capital (Edward Arnold).

Holloway, John, and Sol Picciotto 1991 (1977), “Capital, Crisis and State”, in Simon Clarke (ed), The State Debate (Macmillan).

Hyman, Richard, 1980, “British Trade Unionism: Post-War Trends and Future Prospects”, International Socialism 8 (spring).

Hyman, Richard, 2011, “Will the Real Richard Hyman Please Stand Up?”, Capital and Class 36 (1).

Jessop, Bob 1985, Nicos Poulantzas (Macmillan).

Johnson, Carol, 1980, “The Problem of Reformism and Marx’s Theory of Fetishism” New Left Review 119 (Jan/Feb).

Kagarlitsky, Boris, 1990, The Dialectic of Change (Verso).

Kampagiannis, Thanasis, 2013, “Greece, Politics and Marxist Strategy”, International Socialism 138 (spring), www.isj.org.uk/?id=889

Kellogg, Paul, 2012, “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)”, http://links.org.au/node/3109

Lenin, V I, 1920, “Speech on Affiliation to the Labour Party”, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jul/x03.htm

Lenin, V I, 1968 [1917], “The State and Revolution”, in Lenin’s Selected Works (Progress),
www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/

Looker, Bob, 1985, “Class Conflict and Socialist Advance in Contemporary Britain”, in David Coates and others (ed), A Socialist Anatomy of Britain (Polity).

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1986 [1906], The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (Bookmarks), www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1989 [1900], Reform or Revolution (Bookmarks), www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/

Mandel, Ernest, 1978, From Stalinism to Eurocommunism (NLB).

Marlière, Philippe 2013, “French voters have had enough of François Hollande and his government”, Guardian (6 May), www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/06/french-voters-have-had-enough-of-hollande

Marvis, Yianns 2012, “Greece’s Austerity Election”, New Left Review, II/76.

Marx, Karl, 1973 [1861], Grundrisse (Penguin), ” target=”_blank”>www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/

Marx, Karl 1975 [1843], “On the Jewish Question”, Marx, Karl, Early Writings (Penguin),
www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/

Marx, Karl, 1976 [1867], Capital, volume I (Penguin), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/

Mason, Paul, 2012, “Greece: Trying to Understand Syriza”, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18056677

Mayer, Martin and Michael Lavellette 2012, “Can we Reclaim the Labour Party?”, Socialist Worker (9 October), www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=29738

McGuinness, Fergal, 2012, “Membership of UK Political Parties”, House of Commons Library, www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05125.pdf

Michels, Robert, 1962, Political Parties (Collier Press).

Miliband, Ralph 1972, Parliamentary Socialism (Merlin).

Miliband, Ralph, 1976, “Moving On”, Socialist Register 1976 (Merlin).

Miliband, Ralph, 1982, Capitalist Democracy in Britain (Oxford University Press).

Ness, Immanuel, and Dario Azzellini, 2011, Ours to Master and to Own (Haymarket).

Newman, Michael 2002, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left (Merlin).

Nimtz, August, 2000, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (State University of New York Press).

Picciotto, Sol, 1979, “The Theory of the State, Class Struggle and the Rule of Law”, in Bob Fine, Richard Kinsey, John Lea, Sol Picciotto and Jock Young (eds), Capitalism and the Rule of Law (Hutchinson).

Pemberton, Hugh, and Mark Wickham-Jones, 2013, “Labour’s Lost Grassroots: the Rise and Fall of Party Membership” British Politics, volume 8, http://bit.ly/11c6NIC

Post, Charles 2010, “Exploring Working Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of the ‘Labour-Aristocracy’”, Historical Materialism 18:4

Potter, Tim 1981, “The Death of Eurocommunism”, International Socialism 13 (summer).

Poulantzas, Nicos 1978, State, Power, Socialism (NLB).

Riddell, John, 1991 (ed), Workers if the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! volume 1 (Pathfinder).

Riddell, John, 2012, “Editorial Introduction”, in John Riddell (ed), Towards the United Front (Haymarket).

Rooksby, Ed, 2013, “Why It’s Time to Realign the Left”, Socialist Review 380 (May),
www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12302

Salvadori, Massimo, 1979, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (NLB).

Schorske, Carl, 1983, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 (Harvard University Press).

Seymour, Richard, 2012a, “A Comment on Greece and Syriza”, International Socialism 136 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=854

Seymour, Richard, 2012b, “The Challenge of Syriza”, www.leninology.com/2012/06/challenge-of-Syriza.html

Simon, Rick, 2007, “Eurocommunism”, in Daryl Glaser and David Walker (eds), Twentieth Century Marxism: A Global Introduction (Routledge).

Spencer, Phil 1979, “The ‘Left’ Face of Eurocommunism’, International Socialism 5 (summer).

Spourdalakis, Michael 2012, “Left Strategy in the Greek cauldron: Explaining Syriza’s Success”, Socialist Register 2013 (Merlin).

Steenson, Gary 1981, Not One Man! Not One Penny!: German Social Democracy 1863-1914 (Pittsburgh University Press).

Thompson, Edward, 1960a, “At the Point of Decay”, in Edward Thompson (ed), 1960, Out of Apathy (Stevens & Sons).

Thompson, Edward, 1960b, “Revolution”, in Edward Thompson (ed), 1960, Out of Apathy (Stevens & Sons).

Thompson, Willie, 1998, The Communist Movement Since 1945 (Blackwell).

Trotsky, Leon, 1971, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder).

Trotsky, Leon, 1973a, The Spanish Revolution (Pathfinder).

Trotsky, Leon, 1973b, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939-40] (Pathfinder).

Trotsky, Leon, 1975, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1930] (Pathfinder).

Trotsky, Leon, 1979, Writings of Leon Trotsky, Supplement [1934-40] (Pathfinder).

Watkins, Susan 2012, “Turning the Screw”, New Left Review, II/75.

Webb, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, 1920, The History of Trade Unionism (Longmans, Green and Co).